Tuscany’s Own Switzerland

As it was close to lunchtime in Pescia we were feeling somewhat peckish so our visit to the left, religious side of Pescia was cursory. It did not matter to me as I’d seen the wonderful sights on this side of the city several times before. For instance, there’s a brilliant mediaeval festa which you can read all about at my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/strawberries-at-montecarlo-and-mediaeval-times-in-pescia/

You cannot afford to miss Pescia Festa Medievale – it’s quite delightful.

The two big sights in Pescia’s religious area are, of course, the cathedral and the church and convent of Saint Francis. The cathedral was closed for restoration while we were there this time but is a superb building when you can get inside it. Dating back to the 5th century it’s been restructured various times. The oldest parts go back to the 11th century and include sections of the exterior wall and the campanile.

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Thoroughly baroquized in the 18th century the cupola dates from that time. The façade was only completed in 1933 (such is the case with so many Tuscan churches, some of which, like Florence’s San Lorenzo were never completed at all.

Many of the side altars are superb and particular notice should be taken of the altar of the most Holy Sacrament since its painting of the Virgin by Bandini is an exact copy of the original Raphael sold to Ferdinand I of the Medici family who coveted it and made it part of his collection in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti.

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The high altar is of particular interest as it was commissioned by one of the greatest castrato singers of all time, Giovanni Francesco Grossi, otherwise known as Siface, one of Francesco Cavalli’s favourite singers and protagonist of several of Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas.

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Siface had a huge success in the UK and even sang in Samuel Pepys’ house before the awful UK climate started affecting his voice and he returned to Italy’s warmer climes. It appears too that Siface had a passionate love affair with a Bolognese countess who, regrettably, was whisked away by her family to a convent when they found out. All ended happily, however, and Siface and his beautiful widow eloped and were re-united.

In case you were wondering whether castrati could have amorous desires for females then remember that this was the time before the pill and if you were a famous singer and a castrato too you could have the most alluring women at your feet. The gentler sex had then no fear of becoming pregnant again for the umpteenth time and they knew that they had someone with some of the largest pay-packets of the age. (Medical tests have shown that castrati can have erections and delight in orgasm, although their ejaculation is, obviously, minimal).

Don’t forget too that the last great castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died less than a hundred years ago in 1922 and there are extant recordings made by him. Just think what we are missing by not having real castrati today in the revival of baroque opera (although vocal technique has developed to such an extent that a castrato-like voice may be imitated. My own favourite modern castrato is Philippe Jaroussky). Music sometimes requires great sacrifices but the rewards can be truly great. Any volunteers?

The other great church in Pescia is that of San Francesco which has the privilege of having the earliest portrait of Saint Francis:

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The portrait was painted by someone who actually knew Francis – Bonaventura Berlinghieri – a painter familiar to anyone who has visited our local Tereglio Parish church with its magnificent crucifix.

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We did manage to see a delightful little chapel with a remarkable twelfth century wooden deposition and some beautiful mediaeval frescoes by Bicci di Lorenzo.

Anyway, we were getting ever hungrier: the day was fine so we decided to take a look at La Pesciatina Svizzera.

The reason why this beautiful area to the north of Pescia (and just across from our Val di lima if you decide to walk from Zato above Lucchio to its first town Pontito – see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/23/lazzaro-papi-colonel-of-the-bengal-lancers/ for something about Pontito and its most famous inhabitant who served under the British Bengal lancers) is called Swiss Pescia is due to a Genevan, Jean Charles Leonarde Simonde de Simonde, who visiting (and buying a property) in the area reminded him of his own gentle Genevan landscape rather than the wilder Swiss alps.

This lovely area should be more correctly known as the Val di Nievole after its main river. In fact it, divides into two parts: the Val di Forfora and the Val di Sorana. Both rivers unite at Sorana, famous for its amazingly tasteful D. O. P. beans pined for from all over the world, to become the river Pescia di Pescia.

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Another feature of the Valdinievole is its ten Castelli or castles, which are villages of incredibly steep streets built around an ancient nucleus of a castle. Their names are:

Pontito

Stiappa

Castelvecchio

San Quirico

Vellano

Sorana

Aramo

Fibbialla

Medicina

Pietrabuona

The chief village is Vellano which was wisely chosen as a feeding and watering place. The restaurant selected was the Trattoria Manero which, in addition to a very gustoso menu (including those famed beans)

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also sports a stupendous view over the whole Svizzera Pesciatina in a conservatory-like extension which became really warm even at this time of year.

The meal was excellent and most reasonably priced.

Afterwards we took a walk around Vellano which must surely have some of the steepest streets anywhere. Without sporting any unduly remarkable buildings it was a truly picturesque town – a worthy Castello di Valdinievole.

It was lovely to see the parish church of Santi Martino e Sisto set against the quasi-winter sunset. Then we were homeward bound, regretfully but necessarily.

I find it remarkable that not that many inhabitants from Val di Lima know much about Val di Nievole. Perhaps it’s because, unless you are adventurous enough to walk across from Zato to Pontito, it requires quite a long way round to get to it.

Every Castello in Valdinievole is worth lingering in. My own favourite is Castelvecchio with its extraordinary pieve encrusted with mythological beasts and recently excellently restored.

Has anyone else fallen in love with ‘La Svizzera Pesciatina’?

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Fishing for Pescia’s Hidden Treasures

Pescia is one of Italy’s large list of overlooked cities.  Usually what happens is that, if travelling from Lucca to Florence, there may be a stop at Pistoia at the most. (Pistoia is, indeed – together with Prato – one of the most wonderful cities in Tuscany (or indeed in Italy!).

Yet Pescia has much of interest too and, since it is so near to the Lucchesia it is certainly worth making a day of it. Furthermore, if Peter Sellers regarded Balham as the gateway to South-West London, then Pescia is the gateway to the ‘Svizzera Pesciatina’ or ‘Pescian Switzerland’, a delightful sequence of bosky valleys and castle-like villages. (But more of that later).

Pescia has a long history dating back to at least Longobard times and, was fought over by both Lucca and Florence and even Pisa before it finally passed into Florentine domination in the fifteenth century. Indeed, there is an imposing gateway arching the road to Florence called ‘Porta Fiorentina’.

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Unusually for many Italian cities built on a river Pescia has two distinct nuclei. On the right bank of the River Pescia di Pescia (the name derives from ancient Longobard pehhia meaning stream) is the commercial centre and on the left bank is the religious side.

I’ve always enjoyed my times in Pescia and on a visit yesterday I started by exploring the commercial centre which is centrered around the large Piazza Mazzini, encircled by some very fine old buildings, a few including mediaeval towers.

The first interesting sight, however, is the ‘Casa del Fascio’ a fine example of totalitarian architecture dating from 1928. I have been unable to discover who the architect was but the building has stylistic affinities with Michelucci.

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Note the lictors’ fasces on either side of the main doorway, The building now houses the comune’s archives.

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Don’t miss the delightful church of the Madonna a Piè di Piazza which, among its treasures, has a wonderfully carved ceiling.

At Christmas time there are many nativity scenes on show and, indeed, there is a civic nativity itinerary. My main aim was to re-visit the extraordinary collection of plaster casts donated in 1980 by the descendants of Libero Andreotti and now housed in the antico Palagio del comune which is well worth a visit just by itself.

Libero Andreotti (Pescia 1875 – Florence 1933) is considered to be Pescia’s most famous citizens. (I could also include the unfortunately neglected composer of over seventy operas, Giovanni Pacini who, although born in Catania in 1796, spent the last ten years of his life in Pescia where he died in 1867 and where Pescia’s theatre is named after him. I do hope the town museum will reopen since it contains valuable Pacini memorabilia.

(If you’ve never head Pacini here’s excerpts from his opera depicting the last day of Pompeii.)

At the old Palagio comunale we were met by a charming lady who combined the role of administrator, secretary and guide. It seemed to me that she was truly doing the job of at least three people. Thanks to her enthusiasm I was able to glean the following facts about Libero Andreotti who, together with Pascoli and Puccini, formed a close friendship trio.

Libero started off working in a smithy when eight years old. When he was seventeen the determining meeting of his life occurred when he met Alfredo Caselli. Caselli was perhaps one of the most significant persons in Luccan fin de siècle social life. Born in Lucca in 1865, he inherited his father’s caffé in Via Fillungo which is now called Caffé di Simo. (Shamefully closed since 2012 this historical caffé which played such an important part in Lucca’s cultural history may well reopen next year after lengthy legal problems and structural difficulties.) The caffé is one of those great Italian institutions (like Caffé san Marco in Trieste or Gran Caffé Margherita in Viareggio) which weren’t just a place to have a cup of coffee but formed a hub for artists and intellectuals to meet and exchange ideas.

Through Caselli, Andreotti met such composers as Catalani and Puccini, poet Pascoli and painter Viani. They stimulated Libero creatively and he found his true vocation which was that of a sculptor,largely self-taught. After a disappointing stint as illustrator and caricaturist for Palermo’s weekly socialist paper ‘La Battaglia’ Libero returned to Tuscany.

He also stayed in Paris for some time where he learned new techniques and became friends with Modigliani.

The museum contains works from all stages of Andreotti’s career. From an earlier phase as a follower of post-impressionist Medardo Rossi, much admired by Rodin, Libero passed over to a more neo-classical phase. Among the exhibits are sensuous ballet sculptures depicting Nijinsky dancing Debussy’s ‘Prelude à l’après midi d’un faune’

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Libero survived his soldiering in World War One and afterwards received his first truly monumental commissions which clearly and sadly were memorials to the Fallen.

Here is the memorial to the war dead in Bolzano:

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And here is the original plaster cast in Pescia. There was some criticism that it resembled too closely Piero Della Francesca’s famous resurrection in Sansepolcro. Libero, however, received eclectic influences and was well aware of his debt to renaissance art which he adored.

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The cire-perdue method was used for Andreotti’s completed bronze works. Most of these are today dispersed or lost. Some were melted down for the war effort (a completely useless exercise like those railings removed that once surrounded London’s terraced houses). Others are in private collections, and more we don’t know where they finished up. That’s why the gipsoteca at Pescia is so important for an assessment of Andreotti’s work.

I loved this sculpture personifying the Africo and Mensola streams in Florence. Anyone who has been to Florence will know that these two streams never actually meet. The story comes from Boccaccio’s ‘Il Ninfale Fiesolano’ which tells how Africo, a shepherd, fell in love with Mensola, the goddess Diana’s favourite handmaiden. When Diana discovered their liaison she turned both into streams never to meet or cast eyes on each other again.

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The persons who comissioned the statue didn’t like it because they thought Mensola’s legs were impudically too far apart.

Another tale of catastrophic male-female encounters is shown in this one commissioned by English war poet Siegfried Sassoon and displaying Actaeon discovering Diana naked. The goddess was so incensed that she turned Actaeon into a deer that was hunted down and torn apart by his dogs. Somehow, I think the Italian greyhounds depicted wouldn’t have been capable of such a barbarity. Sadly the statue never reached the UK as it was commissioned just before the carnage of WW1.

Andreotti passed his last years in Florence where he lies buried in the cemetery delle Porte Sante at San Miniato sul Monte.

A friend has pointed out to me that Libero’s son, Aldo, became a famous mathematician at Pisa University concentrating largely on algebraic geometry. Aldo clearly inherited his father’s creative genes but developed them into the abstract geometry of mathematics rather than his father’s figurative sculpture.

Here are further examples of Libero Andreotti’s’ art we were privilege to see.

The views from the palagio’s terrace over Pescia were delightful:

This is the original for a giant horse sculpture.

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I just wonder where the giant horse has bolted to.

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And this is the great Libero Andreotti himself:

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When I heard from our charming guide that there was an untapped archive of correspondence between Libero Andreotti and Giacomo Puccini I was quite excited. The first volume of Puccini’s ‘complete’ correspondence was compiled last year by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and Dieter Schickling. It covers the years 1877-1896 and is published by Leo S. Olschki.

I just wonder whether the great Puccini scholar Schickling is aware of this treasure trove hidden in the dusty archives of Pescia’s antico Palagio comunale. Puccini was a brilliant writer of letters which are often highly witty and reveal incredible insights into his life and works. I look forwards to the next volume with eager anticipation.

Opening hours for the museum are

Tuesday to Sunday 9 to 12 and 3 to 6 (except Thurdìsday when its 9 to 12 and 4 to 7)

Further discoveries were awaiting us in Pescia so we had to move on although I would have loved to linger longer in this extraordinary museum, dedicated to a sculptor I suspect few of us have heard of. But Pescia was so full of fascinating details:

 

 

 

Strawberries at Montecarlo and Mediaeval Times in Pescia

There’s a phrase in Italian that aptly sums up a summer in Italy: “l’imbarazzo della scelta” – literally “the embarrassment of choice” but more colloquially rendered as “spoilt for choice”. There are so many sagre (food festivals), music festivals, mediaeval fairs, traditional saints’ days and special visits that even in our little area one has hard decisions to make on where to go, particularly at the week-end. For example, last Sunday we had to choose between a flower, a strawberry and a mediaeval festival.

As it was, the flower event took priority, as described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/the-secret-gardens-of-borgo-castello/ .

But as I love eating strawberries, I would have equally liked to go to Montecarlo’s strawberry fair.

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Montecarlo’s strawberry fair was described as “a celebration of the strawberry, a fruit loved by old and young alike and an excellent source of vitamin C, an anti-inflammatory cure and an excellent aphrodisiac which enhances one’s love life immensely.” (Mmm must try that recommendation out…)

There were stalls selling strawberry risotto, strawberry sweets with honey and yogurt, strawberry milk-shake (naturally) and caipiroske, an alcoholic drink, originally from Brazil but with a Russian twist to it, made from limes and strawberries.

Here’s a recipe I found for it which will make up as a consolation prize for not having attended Montecarlo’s “fragolata”.

INGREDIENTS

  1. 1/2 lime, cut into quarters
  2. 1 heaping cup strawberries, hulled
  3. 1 tablespoon sugar
  4. 2 ounces vodka
  5. Ice
  6. 2 ounces chilled Sprite or club soda (optional)

METHOD

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the lime with all but 1 of the strawberries and the sugar until the berries are juicy. Add the vodka and enough ice to fill a rocks glass. Shake briefly to chill, then pour—don’t strain—into a chilled rocks glass. Stir in the soda and garnish with the reserved strawberry.

This could well be my favourite drink this summer!

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We did however manage to see something of Pescia’s mediaeval event. Pescia is an undeservedly neglected city which I love visiting.

Not only is it the centre of the area’s flourishing horticultural activities but it has many interesting sights including a painting in San Francesco church which shows probably the closest representation of what the saint looked like.

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On Friday 1 and Sunday, May 3 Pescia (PT) plunged back into a medieval atmosphere,

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The city’s four rioni (or  districts), Ferraia, San Francesco, San Michele and Santa Maria, each with its own coat of arms, celebrated with street theatre, stalls, shows, music, mediaeval combat,  performers, arts and crafts, flag-wavers.

The Sbandieratori procession was suitable impressive:

There was also the opportunity to fit oneself out with helmets and chain mail:

Pescia is divided by a river into two clearly marked sections. The main part is on the right side and has an attractive historical centre and two interesting museums.

It’s a pity that the city of Pescia isn’t better known except to those who reside in the Pesciatina Svizzera, an incredibly attractive system of valleys north of the city which are full of villages, just as interesting as those in our Val di Lima, and include an extraordinary church decorated with strange primaeval figures at Castelvecchio.

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It’s possible to visit the Svizzera Pesciatina without having to go all the way round to Marlia if one has a 4 X 4 or trail bike and good weather. Head for Lucchio, continue through Zato and then, via an unmetalled and often muddy road, point towards Pontito where one meets tarmac again. (I’ve mentioned Pontito with reference to that great character Lazzaro Papi in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/23/lazzaro-papi-colonel-of-the-bengal-lancers/ ).

Pescia’s mediaeval fair comes in a May week crowded with events, the principal one of which is when the city celebrates the Holy Crucifix.

This was the programme for this year, largely centrered around Pescia’s grand cathedral

30 April: Holy Mass and anointing of the sick.

1 May: Holy Mass and renewal of marriage vows

2 May: Luminara and procession. This is similar to the Luminara in Pisa and Lucca where electric street lighting is switched off and buildings are silhouetted by thousands of candles. Prizes are given for the best candle display to encourage citizens to “light up”. I must see this one next year…

3 May: distribution of blessed bread. Holy Mass celebrated by Monsignor Fausto Tradelli, Bishop of Pistoia. Offering of Holy oil.

4 May: Holy Mass in commemoration of the dead.

Of all these events we only managed to catch the Bishop’s Mass on 3rd May:

The rioni were also represented by standard bearers:

I am looking forwards (dreading even?) the avalanche of events this part of the world will present for the summer. That’s the advantage, I suppose, of living here: what one misses this year one can catch up with the next.

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